Times-Independent Guest Commentary
The party never ends in Utah…
by Harold Sheperd
Mar 25, 2010 | 3095 views | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
With Shell Oil’s recent withdrawal of a water right permit application to divert 375 cubic feet per second of water from the Yampa River in northwest Colorado, one would get the impression that the bubble has finally burst on mass-scale, traditional energy development in the West and that oil industry has finally come to terms with the continuing problems with technology and costs issues related to oil shale development.

No so in Utah. In fact, proponents of energy development in the state have been practically purring about the potential for the uranium- and oil-shale-rich lands of the iconic canyon country that stretches from Green River, Utah to Rifle, Colo., which some say “could be the most important 150 miles in America.”

In fact, while briefing the Utah Board of Oil, Gas and Mining at the Uintah Basin Applied Technology College in the success of Ecoshale’s feasibility test, Dr. Laura Nelson, vice president of Ecoshale, said the company’s pilot project has produced a high quality oil-shale product. And, “we did so working closely with the Environmental Protection Agency to make an environmentally sensitive product.”

The epicenter of all this attention – Green River, Utah – sits along one of the national energy corridors established under the 2005 Energy Policy Act. Congress ordered federal agencies to designate such corridors in 11 western states that would include oil, gas and hydrogen pipelines and electricity transmission and distribution facilities. As part of the act, Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, recently proposed to issue160-acre leases in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado to oil and gas companies for oil shale development. That can be expanded to 640 acres if commercial development takes place.

Similarly, Earth Energy Resources, a Canada based tar sands mining company, announced that it had received the first oil sands production permit to be granted in the United States, for a project in Uintah and Grand counties. According to its corporate website, Earth Energy Resources Inc. “is pleased to report…that the company has received regulatory approval for its Utah oil sands project containing an estimated 200 million barrels recoverable from its 7,835 acre state leases [and has] received approval for its Notice of Intention to Commence Large Mining Operations from the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining.”

Oil shale and tar sands are not the only industries coming to Utah, however. The National Commission on Energy Policy – a bipartisan group of energy experts – recently stated that climate change legislation currently being considered by Congress must also spur more domestic energy production by extending the production tax credit for new reactors through 2025 and expanding the renewable energy standard to include nuclear power.

Such calls for a nuclear revival have led to rampant uranium-mining speculation in and around Utah, and created divisive battles over mining and processing uranium for fuel rods. Some analysts, for example, say multiple new coal-fired power plants would be needed in Utah alone to develop oil shale in the Green River formation, part of which extends into the Uintah Basin of eastern Utah. Increasing difficulty in obtaining permits to construct coal plants, however, has led to speculation about nuclear power as a means of providing enough electricity to power full-scale oil shale production. Perhaps not coincidently, therefore, a nuclear power plant in Green River, Utah, would be at the epicenter of any future oil shale boom.

Many water experts speculate that the already over-appropriated river systems in Utah simply cannot produce any more water, even without considering that needed for energy development. Because, for example, the Green River nuclear power plant would have access to a 1964 Kane County water right for 29,600 acre-feet, if the river drops, the plant would have rights to what remains, placing it ahead of many other water right holders in southern Utah.

In addition, although the Utah Department of Water Rights has handed out paper rights to an additional 1.1 million acre-feet of water, if Utah develops just 360,000 more acre-feet from the Colorado River Basin, it will hit its limit under the Colorado River Compact. Once that occurs, water will be rationed by priority date across the state.

In that context, water for something like a nuclear or oil shale development plant would have dramatic impacts on the Colorado River and its tributaries, since such uses would be entitled to a significant component of the water Utah has left under the compact. Worse, adding water diversions for energy development could cause state water courts to cut off existing water users once Utah exceeds its allocation under the compact. Or those courts could otherwise force the state to choose between new industrial uses of water over existing agricultural, recreational and aquatic resources.

The question for Utahns is “Which is more important?”

Harold Shepherd is the acting executive director for Red Rock Forests in Moab.

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